At the heart of Poland’s Coal Industry: The COP 24 Climate Talks Embrace a Just and Social Transition

Even if the 196 nations finally agreed on a set of rules at this year’s UN COP24 climate talks in Katowice, Poland, climate diplomacy is known for moving slowly and in circles. Too many vested interests have to hammer out a deal. This makes initiatives at grassroots levels even more important. The civil society, businesses and communities must take up this task on a more local level. Accordingly, the Re-Industrialise Project complements the international climate regime and takes action where it is most needed.

This year’s UN climate conference was held at the heart of Poland’s coalfields in Katowice. Scornfully, climate protesters therefore dubbed the 24th UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP24) “Welcome to coal 24.” Indeed, the 196 delegates were welcomed by thick, polluted air in Katowice. This year’s host city of the UNFCCC negotiations is part of the Silesian coal basin in Poland and home to half of all coal workers in the EU and the Polish “black gold.” Symbolically, the COP24 at the heart of Poland’s rust belt focused on the need to align fossil fuel production with climate goals.

What was at stake at the COP24?

Three years ago, the 196 nations of the COP21 finished negotiations with their landmark Paris Agreement which sealed the international community’s efforts of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This year’s COP had the task of getting the nations to adopt a working rulebook and agree on clear implementation rules for the Paris commitments. In order to make the framework operational, the technicalities were discussed. That is why the Katowice outcome was very crucial for the credibility of the international community. Accordingly, the Polish COP President and Secretary of State Michał Kurtyka appealed to the participants’ conscience in his welcoming speech: “Without success in Katowice there is no success of Paris.” Clear words that obviously needed action!

What is the outcome of the COP24?

After two weeks of negotiations and discussions, the delegates and heads of states finally agreed on a set of rules in order to curb global warming. To this end, the Paris Agreement of 2015 had allotted sufficient time to negotiate the elements of the rulebook which comes into force in 2020. Under the Paris Agreement the countries are supposed to raise their ambitions and carbon cutting pledges before 2020. These climate action pledges are called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). The rulebook also includes details as to how the countries report on their NDCs to monitor their progress. Emissions trading as well as accounting for pollution and the provision of financial means to poorer nations were further pressing issues on the table. However, certain questions concerning emissions trading will be renegotiated next year.

The global response to climate change: the three pillars of climate policy

The international community can only shift towards a low-carbon economy if just and inclusive policies are enacted ensuring that no one gets left behind. That is why a just transition planning has become more important than ever. Some might even argue that it has turned into the third pillar of climate policy – alongside mitigation and adaptation.

Accordingly, a just transition was the underlying theme of the COP24: by means of economic and environmental policies the transition to a low-carbon economy should be accomplished while the impact on communities and workers is minimised.

What is the meaning of a just transition?

Speaking about a just transition, the international community has to bear in mind the effects of the countries, communities and households that still depend on the extraction of fossil fuels – which is especially the case for the Silesian region, the heartland of the Polish coalfields.

Therefore, the Polish President Andrzej Duda presented the Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration on the second day of the UN climate talks. The declaration assumes that climate protection can only be pursued by safeguarding the economic development and creating sustainable employment. The signing of the declaration was one of the key events at the summit. The 45 signatories of the Silesia Declaration confirmed that a low-emission economy relies on social acceptance and the safety of those employees whose jobs will be liquidated. Thus, a solidarity-based and fair transformation requires a subtle approach and takes into account economic, social, climate and environmental dimensions. The signatories also acknowledged the special needs of developing countries and that they should be supported in their efforts to promote sustainable economic activities that will create high-quality jobs.

The Re-Industrialise Project: ideas put into action!

Accordingly, our Re-Industrialise Project assists the key players in two European industrial regions, i.e. Silesia in Poland and the Rhineland lignite region in Western Germany. Complementing the international ambitions, the initiatives of our project provide tools, policy guidance and feasible trajectories for an industrial diversification of those carbon-intense regions. In doing so, the declining coal demand is met with the growth of alternative energy options while socio-economic shifts and regional development are spurred by innovation. This holistic approach links existing regional competencies of carbon intensive industries with a greener and cleaner market and lucrative, fulfilling job opportunities. With climate diplomacy taking only small steps, it is up to businesses, the civil society and communities to walk the talk.